Article: The Wildest Idea on Earth

Imagine living in close proximity to numerous national parks and being “enveloped by connected [wildlife] corridors” that lead to these national parks – or as Edward O. Wilson envisions them, “national biodiversity parks, a new kind of park that won’t let species vanish.” Wilson – a renowned biologist, entomologist, conservationist and Pulitzer Prize winning author – has this vision and believes that it can be accomplished within the next 50 years. Not only can it be accomplished, but it must be in order to thwart the ongoing sixth mass extinction event. To be precise, half the planet must be set aside, restored to its natural state, and protected in perpetuity. A series of large parks connected by continuous corridors – or “Long Landscapes” – is the way Wilson and other conservationists insist this must be done. Tony Hiss explores the “Half Earth” concept in a feature article in the current issue of Smithsonian entitled, The Wildest Idea on Earth (the online version is entitled, Can the World Really Set Aside Half of the Planet for Wildlife?).

Hiss, accompanied by Wilson, visits three locations in North America where this vision is playing out. Their first stop is Nokuse Plantation in the Florida panhandle, where businessman, M.C. Davis, has purchased tens of thousands of acres with the intention of restoring them to native longleaf pine forests, a plant community that has been reduced by 97% due to human activity. Intact longleaf pine forests are incredibly diverse – as many as 60 different species of living things can be found in one square yard – so protecting and restoring them is an ecological imperative.

Longleaf Pine, Pinus palustris (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Longleaf Pine – Pinus palustris (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Later, Davis flies Hiss and Wilson to New England in his private jet. There Hiss discovers a seemingly accidental series of connected natural and restored landscapes nearly 200 miles in length. This corridor, and the land that surrounds it, highlights the need for private land owners to be on board with the Half Earth vision, setting aside their land for conservation in exchange for tax breaks and other incentives.

The importance of private land owners cooperating with this vision comes into play again when Hiss visits the Flying D Ranch near Bozeman, Montana. This 113,613 acre ranch (just a small fraction of the land owned by Ted Turner) is a private ranch that “promote[s] ecological integrity” – it is a wildlife refuge that also turns a profit. Fortunately, the “D” sits within larger wildlife corridor projects – Yellowstone to Yukon and Western Wildway Network highlighting Wilson’s vision of current sanctuaries being incorporated into larger networks of protected lands.

Hiss notes that as these three projects grow and connect to “the great, unbroken forests across all of northern Canada,” North America will become enclosed in “Long Landscapes” with “additional and more inland routes to be added later.” The sooner these corridors and parks are developed the better, because as global climate changes, species will need to move north, south, east, or west as their ecological and biological needs dictate.

It seems a lofty goal. Humans, after all, have spread themselves across the entire planet, modifying every environment as they go – oftentimes to an irreparable extreme. But knowing this, and recognizing that we are only just beginning to feel the effects of climate change, drastic measures to preserve what is left of this planet’s biological diversity become imperative. Hiss’s article is encouraging in this regard. Yes, the places he visited were confined to North America. A more accurate picture could be constructed by incorporating greater international diversity. However, most promising is that the people he talked to were not political figures. Most of them weren’t even professional scientists. They were businessmen, working people, land owners, citizen conservationists. Wealthy, yes. But people who, at some point in their life journeys, saw a need and wanted to help. The story of M.C. Davis illustrates this best of all. If the information is put out there in a manner that people can relate to, they will latch on to it and offer assistance. For all whose goal is to protect half of the earth (or even just some small portion of it) for the sake of non-human life, this article should give some hope.

Tree growing along a creek bed at The Nature Institute, a privately owned nature preserve in Godfrey, Illinois

Tree growing along a creek bed at The Nature Institute, a privately owned nature preserve in Godfrey, Illinois

Hundreds of Japanese Plants Threatened with Extinction

Life has existed on earth for at least 3.5 billion years, and during that time there have been five mass extinctions. Currently, we are in the middle of a sixth one. The major difference between the current extinction event and others is that this one is largely human caused, which is pretty upsetting. However, knowing that detail has its upside: if humans are the drivers of this phenomenon, we can also be the ones to put on the brakes.

Biologists have spent the last several decades tracking the current mass extinction, endeavoring to come up with a list of species that have the greatest risks of extinction, as well as lists of species that are at less of a risk, etc. The problem is that factors leading up to extinctions are diverse, and available data for making predictions is lacking, especially temporal data. Recognizing this information gap, researchers in Japan set out to better determine the extinction risk of Japanese flora. Using data from surveys done by lay botanists in 1994-95 and 2003-04, they were able to calculate a trend which indicated that, under current circumstances, between 370 and 561 plant species in Japan will go extinct within the next 100 years.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

The methods for this study, as described in the findings which appeared last month in PLOS ONE, involved dividing Japan into 3574 sections measuring around 100 square kilometers each and covering about 80% of the country. More than 500 lay botanists tallied the numbers of species that were found in each section during the two time periods. 1735 taxa were recorded, and out of those, 1618 were considered quantifiable and used in the analysis.

Japan is home to a recorded 7087 vascular plant taxa. Historically, the extinction rate of plant taxa in Japan has been around 0.01% per year. According to this study, over the next 100 years the extinction rate will rise to between 0.05 and 0.08% per year. Researchers are organizing a third census in the near future in order to monitor the actual extinction rate and better determine the accuracy of this prediction.

Data collected in these censuses was also used to evaluate the effectiveness of protected areas and determine the need for improvements and expansions. Natural parks cover 14.3% of Japan, but only about half of that area is regulated for biodiversity conservation. The researchers found that protected areas do help to reduce the risk of extinctions, but that their effectiveness is far from optimum and that even expanding protected areas to cover at least 17% of the nation (a target set at the recent Convention on Biological Diversity) would not effectively gaurd threatened plant species from extinction.

In their conclusion, the researchers advise not only to expand protected areas but to improve the “conservation effectiveness” of them, and “to improve the effectiveness of them, we need to know the types of pressures causing population decline in the areas.” They go on to list a few of these pressures, including land development and recreational overuse, and suggest that management schemes should be developed to focus on specific pressures.

Japanese Primrose, Primula japonica (photo credit:

Japanese Primrose, Primula japonica (photo credit:

One thing I found very interesting and encouraging about this study was the recruitment of lay botanists in collecting data. As stated in the findings, “Monitoring data collected by the public can play an essential role in assessing biodiversity.” I am excited by the growing citizen science movement and hope to see it continue to expand as more and more people become interested in science and eager to add to this body of knowledge. In fact, I consider the term “awkward botany” to be synonymous with citizen, lay, and amateur botany. That is precisely why I chose it as the title for my blog. So, in short, expect more posts involving citizen science in the future.

You can read more about this study on John Platt’s blog Extinction Countdown at Scientific American.


Flood Irrigation and Migrating Waterfowl

It’s American Wetlands Month. Last year around this time, I wrote a brief post describing the importance of wetlands and why they are a conservation concern. This year I thought I would write a little about an issue surrounding wetlands that has recently come to my attention: flood irrigated agricultural land and its benefit to migrating waterfowl.

The term “waterfowl” refers to birds that live on or around freshwater, such as ducks, geese, and swans. Like many other birds, they are migratory, typically flying north in the spring to breed and spend the summer raising their young, and then flying back south in the fall to overwinter. There are four major flyways (or migratory flight paths) in the United States: Pacific, Mississippi, Central, and Atlantic. Along these flyways, migrating birds need places to rest and feed in order to maintain the strength to make it to their seasonal homes. As wetlands have disappeared across the country (and the world), essential areas of respite have become few and far between, threatening the survival of this important group of birds.

Dunlins - Calidris alpina (photo credit:

Dunlins – Calidris alpina (photo credit:

Historically, wetlands have largely been diminished and degraded due to human settlement on the floodplains of major rivers. Floodplains are examples of temporary or seasonal wetlands, flooded in the spring when snow in the mountains is melting and during periods of heavy rains but otherwise dry throughout most of the year. These areas appealed to early settlers because they were flat, had great soil for agriculture, and were near a water source. The only downside was the flooding, so levees and dams were built, diversions were made, and eventually these great rivers were tamed, virtually eliminating their status as seasonal wetlands and the important ecological functions that go along with that.

This has spelled disaster for migrating waterfowl who rely on floodplains to be flooded in the spring, providing them with staging habitat on their journey north. Biologists have recognized this issue and have made efforts to protect and restore wetlands in order to provide this essential habitat. But restoring wetlands is a major feat. Rivers that supply both temporary and permanent wetlands aren’t what they used to be. There are myriad diversions and modifications, and with a continually growing human population, too many uses for the water. So that’s where farmers and ranchers come in.

In the spring, many farmers and ranchers flood their fields in order to irrigate crops. Migrating waterfowl take advantage of these flooded fields, stopping to rest and feed. Recognizing the role that flood irrigation has on the survival of these birds, biologists are working with farmers and ranchers along flyways to ensure that their land will remain in agriculture and that land owners will continue to flood irrigate (rather than switching to overhead irrigation). In California for example, rice farmers are being paid by the Nature Conservancy to flood their fields in conjunction with spring and fall migrations in order to ensure that birds will have staging habitat along the way. So, despite humans playing a major role in reducing habitat that migrating waterfowl require for survival, we are finding ways to make up for it. This is just one example of how we can help protect and improve biodiversity in our human-dominated landscapes.

Read more about protecting migrating waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway here.

Geese in a Flooded Rice Field in California (photo credit: NRCS)

Geese in a Flooded Rice Field in California (photo credit: NRCS)

Celebrate American Wetlands Month by learning more about them. Here are some links to get you started:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Association of State Wetland Managers

Defenders of Wildlife


Figs and Fig Wasps

Recently I was listening to a past episode of Caustic Soda Podcast in which the hosts briefly discussed fig wasps. I was intrigued by this discussion, having previously never heard of fig wasps, and so I did a little research. As it turns out, what I am about to share with you here is just the tip of the iceberg. The relationship between figs and fig wasps is a complex topic, to the extent where you could easily spend a lifetime studying this relationship and there would still be more to discover.

Ficus is a genus of plants in the  family Moraceae that consists of trees, shrubs, and vines. They are commonly referred to as figs, and there are between 755 and 850 described species of them (depending on the source). The majority of fig species are found in tropical regions, however many of them are found in temperate regions as well. The domesticated fig (Ficus carica), also known as common fig, is widely cultivated throughout the world for its fruit.

common fig

Ficus carica – common fig

photo credit: wikimedia commons

The fruit of figs, also called a fig, is a multiple fruit because it is formed from a cluster of flowers. A fruit is formed by each flower in the cluster, but they all grow together to form what appears to be a single fruit. Now here is where it starts to get bizarre. The flowers of figs are contained inside a structure called a syconium, which is essentially a modified fleshy stem. The syconium looks like an immature fig. Because they are contained inside syconia, the flowers are not visible from the outside, yet they must be pollinated in order to produce seeds and mature fruits.

This is where the fig wasps come in. “Fig wasp” is a term that refers to all species of chalcid wasps that breed exclusively inside of figs. Fig wasps are in the order Hymenoptera (superfamily Chalcidoidea) and represent at least five families of insects. Figs and fig wasps have coevolved over tens of millions of years, meaning that each species of fig could potentially have a specific species of fig wasp with which it has developed a mutualistic relationship. However, pollinator host sharing and host switching occurs frequently.

Fig wasps are tiny, mere millimeters in length, so they are not the same sort of wasps that you’ll find buzzing around you, disrupting your summer picnic. Fig wasps have to be small though, because in order to pollinate fig flowers they must find their way into a fig. Fortunately, there is a small opening at the base of the fig called an ostiole that has been adapted just for them. What follows is a very basic description of the interaction between fig and fig wasp – remember with the incredible diversity of figs and fig wasps, the specifics are sure to be equally diverse.

First a female wasp carrying the pollen of a fig from which she has recently emerged discovers a fig that is ready to be pollinated. She finds the ostiole and begins to enter the fig. She is tiny, but so is the opening, and so her wings and antennae are ripped off in the process. No worries though, she won’t be needing them anymore. Inside the fig there are two types of flowers – ones with long styles and others with short styles. The female wasp begins to lay her eggs inside the flowers, however she is not able to lay eggs inside the flowers with the long styles. Instead, these flowers get pollinated by the wasp. After all her eggs are laid, the female wasp dies. The fig wasp larvae develop inside galls in the ovaries of the fig flowers, and they emerge from the galls once they have matured into adults. The adult males mate with the females and then begin the arduous task of chewing through the wall of the fig in order to let the females out. After completing this task, they die. The females then leave the figs, bringing pollen with them, and search for a fig of their own to enter and lay eggs. And the cycle continues.

But there is so much more to the story. For example, there are non-pollinating fig wasps that breed inside of figs but do not assist in pollination – freeloaders essentially. And how is the cycle different if the species is monoecious (male and female flowers on the same plant) compared to dioecious (male and female flowers on different plants)? It’s too much to cover here, but visit for more information. FigWeb is an excellent resource for learning all about the bizarre and fascinating world of the fig and fig wasp relationship. Also check out the PBS documentary, The Queen of Trees.

This is the first of hopefully many posts on plant and insect interactions. Leave a comment and let me know what plant and insect interactions interest you.

Invasivore: One Who Consumes Invasive Species

Invasive species are a major ecological concern, and so considerable effort is spent controlling them, with the ultimate goal (albeit a lofty one in most cases) of  eradicating them. The term “invasive species” describes plants, animals, and microorganisms that have been either intentionally or unintentionally introduced into an environment outside of their native range. They are “invasive” because they have established themselves and are causing adverse effects in their non-native habitats. Some introduced species cause no discernible adverse effects and so are not considered invasive. Species that are native to a specific habitat and exhibit adverse effects following a disturbance can also be considered invasive. (White-tailed deer are an example of this in areas where human activity and development have reduced or eliminated their natural predators resulting in considerably larger deer populations than would otherwise be expected.) Defining and describing invasive species is a challenging task, and so it will continue to be a topic of debate among ecologists and conservation biologists for the foreseeable future.

The adverse effects of invasive species are also not so straightforward. Typical examples include outcompeting native flora and fauna, disrupting nutrient cycles, shifting the functions of ecosystems, altering fire regimens, and causing genetic pollution. Countless hours of research and observation are required in order to determine the real effects of invaders. The cases are too numerous and the details are too extensive to explore in this post; however, I’m sure that I will cover more aspects of this topic in the future.

For now I would just like you to consider a novel approach to eradicating invasive species that has recently come to my attention. That is to simply eat them. Why not, right? The voracious appetite of humans has helped drive certain species to extinction in the past, so why can’t our stomachs assist in removing introduced species from their non-native habitats? The folks at are suggesting just that, and by encouraging people to consume invasive species, they are also promoting awareness about invasive species, an awareness that they hope “will lead to decreasing the impacts of invasive species by preventing introductions, reducing spread, and encouraging informed management policies.”

“If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em!” And so they provide recipes in order to encourage people to harvest, prepare, and consume the invasive species in their areas. Some of the invasive plant species they recommend people eat are Autumn Olive (Autumn Olive Jam), garlic mustard (Garlic Mustard Ice Cream), Japanese honeysuckle (Honeysuckly Simple Syrup), purslane (Purslane Relish), and Canada goldenrod (Strawberry-Goldenrod Pesto). And that’s just a sampling. One might ask if we are encouraged to eat invasive species and ultimately find them palatable, won’t our demand result in the increased production of these species? The Invasivores have considered this, and that is why their ultimate goal is raising awareness about the deleterious effects of invasive species. In the end, we should expect to see our native habitats restored. Our craving for Burdock Chips on the other hand will have to be satisfied by some other means.

lonicera japonica

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Other websites that encourage the consumption of invasive species:

Baobab Trees Facing Extinction

Declining populations of baobab trees have been a concern for more than a decade now. That concern has been amplified with the release of a recent study that shows that two baobab tree species endemic to Madagascar risk losing the majority of their available habitat due to climate change and human development in the coming decades.

Baobab trees are spectacular sights. Unique in appearance, they can grow up to about 100 feet tall with trunk diameters as wide as 36 feet and can live for hundreds (possibly thousands) of years. As the trees age, they develop hollow trunks used for storing water (as much as 26,000 gallons!) to help them survive long periods of drought. The fruits of baobab trees are coconut-sized and edible and are said to taste like sherbet. The leaves of at least one species are eaten as a vegetable, and the seeds of some species are used to make vegetable oil. Various other products, including fibers, dyes, and fuel are also derived from baobab trees.

There are nine species of baobab trees (Adansonia spp.). Eight are native to Africa and one is native to Australia. Two of the African species are also found on the Arabian Peninsula, and six of the African species are found only on Madagascar. Three of the Madagascan species (A. grandidieri, A. perrieri, and A. suarezensis) are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. Currently, A. perrieri has the lowest population of the three species, with only 99 observed trees. It is estimated that by 2080, its range will be reduced to 30% of what it currently is, further threatening its survival. A. suarezensis has a considerably larger population (15,000 trees) but a much smaller distribution area (1,200 square kilometers). By 2050, this area is estimated to be reduced to only 17 square kilometers, practically guaranteeing its eventual extinction. On the bright side, A. grandidieri has a population of about one million trees and an extensive range that should remain largely undisturbed in the coming decades.

An interesting component to this story is how giant tortoises fit in. The fruits and seeds of baobab trees are relatively large, and so their dispersal is best carried out by animals. Seeds that fall too close to the parent trees have little chance of survival since they will be shaded out and will have to compete with large, adjacent trees. Animals that eat the fruits of the baobab trees help to disperse the seeds by defecating them in areas away from large trees where the seedlings will have a greater chance of survival. Two species of giant tortoises that were once native to Madagascar but have now been extinct for hundreds of years were likely primary dispersers of baobab tree seeds. A recent study used a species of giant tortoise not native to Madagascar (the Aldabra giant tortoise) to test this hypothesis. The tortoise readily consume the fruit of the baobab tree. The seeds remain in the tortoise’s digestive system for up to 23 days, giving the tortoise plenty of time to move to an area suitable for seed germination. Given these findings, biologists are currently working to introduce Aldabra giant tortoises to Madagascar to help save the baobab trees.

Climate change, loss of habitat due to human development, and loss of seed dispersers due to extinction threaten the survival of some baobab tree species, but by recognizing this threat, biologists can work towards preventing their eventual extinction. As we gain a better understanding and appreciation for the need for biodiversity on our planet, we will resolve to take greater steps to protect it.

To learn more about baobab trees facing extinction and giant tortoises as seed dispersers, visit the Scientific American blog, Extinction Countdown, here and here.

baobab tree

Adansonia grandidieri

photo credit: wikimedia commons

A Plant Community’s Response to Climate Change

The threat of ensuing climate change has led many to consider what the future might look like for life on earth. Plant life will undoubtedly be affected, and numerous observations have already been made indicating that plants and plant communities are responding to changing climates.

A recent study, published in Ecology and Evolution, documented changes in the lower elevation boundaries and elevation ranges of common plants found on the Santa Catalina Mountains (near Tucson, Arizona). A study of this caliber is rare because there is relatively little data available to observe such changes over a long period of time. The scientists that carried out this study were able to use survey data collected by Robert Whittaker (the father of modern plant ecology) and William Niering in 1963. Whittaker and Niering conducted an extensive survey of plants along the Catalina Highway, which still exists today and runs along the southern slopes of the Santa Catalinas. Following similar data collection methods, researchers from the University of Arizona surveyed plants along the Catalina Highway nearly 50 years after the original survey. What they found confirmed predictions: montane plants in the southwest are responding to a warmer and drier climate by shifting their lower elevation limits upward.

The average annual air temperature in this region has increased an average of 0.25 degrees Celsius per decade since 1949. Also, rainfall has decreased significantly since Whittaker and Niering’s original plant survey. Twenty seven of the most common plant species were selected from the new survey and compared to the original survey data. Fifteen of the twenty seven species (56%) have significantly shifted their lower elevation boundaries, moving further up the slopes of the mountains to escape higher temperatures and reduced rainfall. Some of the plant species have also shifted their upper elevation boundaries, with four of them moving further upslope and eight of them moving further downslope.

The authors of this study state that “even a casual observer could recognize changes in plant elevation boundaries.” Alligator juniper, bracken fern, beargrass, and sotol are examples of plants in the Catalinas that have noticeably migrated upslope and are no longer found at lower elevations where they were once common. Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana), for one, was once documented growing at least as low as 3500 feet, but now does not occur until after the 5000 feet mark.

This rare opportunity to compare current plant survey data with old data paints a stark picture regarding the effects of climate change. As plants and animals are forced upslope to escape warmer and drier climates, they may eventually find themselves with nowhere to go and ultimately end up extinct, reducing overall biodiversity on the planet. The authors of this study conclude their findings with this statement: “The shifts in plant ranges we observed in the Santa Catalina Mountains indicate that the area occupied by montane woodland and conifer forests in the Desert Southwest is likely to decrease even more with predicted increases in temperature, and that regional plant community composition has and will continue to change with further warming as plant species respond individualistically to changing climates.”

Read more about this study at the University of Arizona news site.

alligator juniper_juniperus deppeana

Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana)

photo credit: wikimedia commons